By Elliott Smith

When Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garçon takes stock of the irreplaceable endeavors he undertook as a member of the National Football League, one will forever hold a special place in his heart.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” Garçon said of his 2014 USO tour to Afghanistan with fellow players Jimmy Graham of the Seattle Seahawks and former New Orleans Saints punter Brandon Fields. “It is one of those things that you always remember, forever. It was an amazing trip. There were a lot of football fans out there. We were able to bring smiles to their faces, and they were able to bring smiles to ours.”

For 50 years, the USO and NFL have joined forces to keep service members overseas connected to family, home and country thanks to these goodwill tours featuring members of the United States’ most popular professional sports league. More than 180 NFL players, officials, coaches and executives have taken part in 49 tours to 24 countries during that span, creating a partnership that has become essential to both organizations.

Photo credit USO photo

Pierre Garçon, Jimmy Graham and Brandon Fields traveled to the Middle East in 2014 to spend time with deployed service members.

“We are excited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NFL/USO relationship,” NFL Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility Anna Isaacson said. “Our work with the USO enables us to give back to the men and women in uniform that sacrifice so much for this country, and we could not be prouder of what we’ve accomplished together.”

The genesis for the partnership began with the country embroiled in the tumultuous Vietnam War. Then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle came up with the idea to send NFL players on tours to visit U.S. troops to show the league’s support for America’s fighting forces. At the same time, the league was just beginning to lay the groundwork for its immense popularity after the AFL-NFL merger—the 1966 season would culminate in Super Bowl I. That same year, the NFL became the first sports organization to send players into Vietnam and the Far East.

The inaugural USO-NFL tour to Vietnam featured four future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees—Willie Davis, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and Johnny Unitas—and began a relationship that continues to thrive to this day.

“We love the NFL, is how I would sum it up,” said USO Vice President of Entertainment Rachel Tischler. “It’s a wonderful partnership and one we are looking forward to continuing. For 50 years, these tours have been so incredibly impactful.”

For the NFL players who are often viewed in a heroic light on the field, getting to visit with people they admire was a major reason they wanted to participate in the tours.

“We play while they fight. These are the true heroes,” said NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent.

“We’re in the entertainment business. They serve. We consider ourselves as heroes in our society but these are true heroes,” said Vincent, a former cornerback who played for the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins during his 16-year NFL career. “When we can recognize who the real heroes are—these men and women—that’s the importance of this relationship. We wear uniforms to honor our teams, they wear uniforms to honor our great country. That’s the true heart of a hero, when you look into the eyes of a soldier.”

According to a 2014 poll by the Associated Press, 49 percent of Americans consider themselves NFL fans, and that figure certainly correlates with U.S. military bases around the world, where the arrival of players and coaches on a tour is often eagerly anticipated.

“It’s the connection to home and family,” Tischler said. “Everyone has a favorite player or team, and everyone dreams of catching the ball from their favorite quarterback. You don’t need to construct a field somewhere, you just drop someone on the deck of a ship or in the desert and you can start making magic happen.”

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Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten takes a photo with Cowboys fans on top of a vehicle proudly displaying a Cowboys flag, which Witten later autographed during a 2010 USO/NFL tour.

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Peyton Manning tosses a pass into an audience of service members during 2013 trip to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. Since teaming up in 1966, more than 180 NFL players, coaches, officials and executives have toured for the USO.

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Former Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey gets help putting on body armor during a stop on his weeklong USO/NFL tour in 2013.

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Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher lets a fan show off Cowher’s Super Bowl ring during a 2012 tour.

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Vernon Davis visits service members during a USO tour in 2010.

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Pierre Garcon, of the Washington Redskins, plays catch with service members stationed in the Middle East in 2014.

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Andrew Luck signs a shirt for a sailor at Naval Support Activities Bahrain during a 2015 tour.

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Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack, right, captures video of a group of soldiers from the Ohio National Guard at Camp Stone in Afghanistan as they sing their cheers for the Browns.

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Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller visits with troops stationed in the Middle East during a stop on his weeklong USO/NFL tour in 2013.

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Hall of Fame NFL coach Don Shula addresses the crew of the USS Ronald Reagan underway in the Gulf of Oman in 2009.

The players cherish the opportunity to interact with service men and women who often want nothing more than to be able to share their favorite memories with some of their on-field idols.

“I was visiting with a wounded Marine whose family was being brought in from the States because it wasn’t quite clear if he was going to make the week,” said former 49ers safety Merton Hanks, now the NFL’s vice president of operations.

“It turned out that he was a great 49ers fan and he told me that in his darkest times, he and his Marines would recount stories of great games that they saw on the NFL stage and how it really got them through,” Hanks said. “When you hear something like that from a man who has been told he has hours to live, that tells you the depth of the love our military has for the NFL.”

Garçon, who started his college career at Vermont’s Norwich University, the oldest private military college in the United States, said he almost felt at home due to the surroundings and the way the service members made the bases feel welcoming.

“It was different, but it was also kind of normal,” he recalled. “I went to a military school, so I was kind of used to it. I couldn’t really tell I was in Afghanistan—there were a lot of things on base that made it feel like home. The soldiers showed us what they do on a regular basis, the missions they go out on, the equipment they work with, everything they do.

“And then we played video games with them, played pickup basketball games. We had a great time. It was just one of those great things to be around.”

Over the years, some of the biggest names in the NFL—Bart Starr, Dick Butkus, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Warrick Dunn, Drew Brees, Jason Witten, J.J. Watt, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning—have toured with the USO, and the list continues to grow.

Former NFL linebacker Dhani Jones tests the speed and determination of Rino, a military working dog stationed at Camp Arena in Afghanistan. | Photo credit USO photo

“We have a wonderful relationship with the NFL and work closely with headquarters,” Tischler said. “We annually organize at least two tours. The NFL reaches out to teams and coaches, puts together rosters of available people and we try to make it work within the dates. We do have players who reach out to us, and we see if we are aligned and can help them. Some players tell all their friends to go—they talk about the incredible times they’ve had and it energizes their colleagues to do the same thing.”

Even current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell experienced a USO tour when he went with a group of players on a seven-day tour to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, becoming the first pro sports commissioner to participate in an overseas tour.

“[My USO tour] was a privilege and had a profound impact on me,” Goodell told the USO via email in 2014. “The NFL’s support for the military had always been a priority, but it was really striking to see first-hand how much NFL football means to our service members overseas. Some of our players were traveling with me and we all came back with a renewed and strengthened commitment to our troops.”

In addition to the tours, the NFL has supported the USO in a variety of ways, including the league’s Salute to Service campaign. It’s also made monetary donations to help build the Pat Tillman USO Center in Afghanistan and the NFL Sports Lounge at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Additionally, it’s provided in-kind gifts like free NFL Game Pass to USO centers around the world.

Still, NFL executives feel it’s important to not take the relationship between the organizations for granted and continue supporting tours and other opportunities.

“It’s important that yesterday’s legends, today’s players and our young people coming in—the Andrew Lucks and the Odell Beckhams of the world, who will be carrying the banner for the NFL in the coming years—recognize what our American military services have done,” Hanks said.

Photo credit USO photo by Fred Greaves

Following an impromptu touch football game with troops stationed in the Middle East, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt autographs a T-shirt for a service member during the weeklong USO/NFL tour in March 2013.

“Our responsibility as leaders, as coaches and as an office is to constantly remind our players that we play and they fight,” Vincent added. “Our service men and women allow us to play on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays—total freedom. Our young men and coaches, many of them understand that. But we have to keep that image in front of them. It’s no different than when we teach the heritage and history of football.”

The future of the USO-NFL partnership—the tours in particular—remains bright, thanks to the enthusiasm and passion of both organizations.

“We can never have enough tours, and even if we are at peace, there will be enduring locations around the world,” Tischler said. “We will always take players out to talk about football and the significance between military and team.”

“These are the people that protect us. They are the real heroes. They keep us safe. They’re doing something we wish we could do and we’re doing something they wish they could do,” Garçon said.

“We definitely feed off of each other. There’s a big morale boost for both sides. Every [player] should take advantage of it. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

—Elliott Smith is a Virginia-based freelance writer. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.